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During a recent 15-minute segment on Power 105's Ed Lover Morning Show, Cathy Middleton fields calls coming in on the jammed switchboard.
"She's our most popular guest outside of celebrity artists that come to the show," Jennifer Romero, a screener handling the calls says about Middleton, who is also a regular guest of Wendy Williams at WBLS and Michael Baisden on his syndicated show.
A woman named Melissa calls in to the show with a typical question: "My baby's father owes arrears," she says, "but I don't want to collect them because he has been doing really well in paying child support."
Now it's true that Middleton has a book called Girl, Get That Child Support: The Baby Mama's Guide to Tracking Down a Deadbeat, Finding His Cash and Making Him Pay Every Dollar He Owes You, but she's actually less one-sided than the title implies. Middleton has not only helped hundreds of women track down their deadbeat baby daddies, but she's also helped men get out from under onerous demands from their baby mamas. It's the babies that matter, and sometimes, she argues, a baby mama should consider being more lenient than a court of law.
Middleton explains to Melissa that under federal law, arrears can't be waived by Family Court. "The only person who can is you. Go down to the court and file paperwork to have his arrears waived."
Next up is a father named Terrence: "Do I get to stop paying child support when my kid turns 18—or 21?"
Middleton explains that it depends what his child is up to: "In New York State, you are no longer liable at age 18 if they are no longer in school and are economically independent, working," she says. "It is 21 if they are in college or still in school."
A woman named Laura gets through next: "If the father gets married, does his wife's income factor into my child-support payment? I know he's making more money, and now I have to pay $300 a month for health insurance."
Sorry, Laura—your baby daddy's new squeeze isn't responsible for her new husband's existing children. In fact, the game changes if the new couple start having babies of their own, Middleton explains. "Now, if he and his wife have a child, they have every right to go to court and have the judgment modified down. It sounds like you need to call me."
And that's just what many of Ed Lover's listeners do after Middleton leaves the studio. After a typical radio appearance, she gets about 50 calls from people inquiring into her legal services. And those potential clients are what make the trip to the studio worth it—even when she used to set out at 5 a.m. on the two-hour drive from Long Island to Philadephia for her regular appearances on a radio station there. The trip downtown to Power 105 is much easier.
Middleton says that her firm, Middleton & Middleton, grossed $105,000 last year with a caseload that is 90 percent child-support and custody matters. "It's a decent living," says the 39-year-old, who gives the impression she'd be happy with less: She doesn't wear flashy jewelry, doesn't have a cell phone (she has yet to replace the one she lost), wears sensible shoes, and has her hair pulled back into a bun. And there's no diva attitude.
Middleton & Middleton is a firm of one: Her sister, who was her partner, died of cancer a decade ago, but Middleton still says "we." She has one assistant and spends three days a week meeting with clients in her storefront office in the Laurelton section of Queens, where she grew up. Next-door is a day-care center owned by her parents, and across the street is an annex to the day care, which is run by another sister, a teacher. The comedian Chris Rock is her first cousin, though they aren't close. Middleton attended Temple Law School, and her husband is a lawyer as well. (They have one child.)
She's been practicing law for 15 years, but about six years ago, she saw a growing demand in the area of child-support law. "The number of child-support cases was increasing, and the larger society didn't realize this was a major breakdown in our family structure, especially within the African-American family. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock," she says.
Business grew by word of mouth, as frustrated parents unclear about how the system worked began to find her. And now she's a budding radio star who is also in talks for appearances on the TV shows of Dr. Phil and ex–Jerry Springer bouncer Steve Wilkos.
"Everybody either has a child, is dating someone who has a child by another partner, or is related to someone who is going through it. In my case, my brother is going through child-support issues, so I see it," says Sarah O'Conner, the producer who books her for Ed Lover's show. "Cathy is very informative on how the law is designed and how it varies from state to state."
Middleton herself admits to being drawn to the drama of Family Court. "I'll admit I'm nosy, and I like to know what's going on in people's lives ever since I was a little kid. But when you're in my position, you see that most of this can be resolved if people just communicated."